Having lost my father to cancer when I was 14, I never really got to know him enough to be able to share my love of music. That love came in my adult years, when I spent countless hours each week learning new instruments, writing and recording songs, jamming with friends and occasionally performing – in band competitions, orchestras, recitals and examinations. I put myself through a Music Honours degree while teaching full time because I wanted to show to myself – and perhaps my dad – just how serious I was.
Like any would-be musician, I spent way too much time on the slippery slope of perfectionism. I’m quite good at berating myself when things aren’t right and putting myself down in the company of friends and strangers. Like most Aussie blokes, I’m terrified of being cut down in the spotlight – so I often try to cut myself down preemptively.
Part of learning to be a musician is learning to be comfortable in your own skin – and I’ve still got a very long way to go on that score. It’s in being prepared to make mistakes that we’re at our most vulnerable. But I think it’s when we’re most vulnerable that we really have the chance to shine. We can be our true selves.
I’m very fortunate to have worked as a Music teacher – and seen the wretched struggles that kids go through – so similar to my own and so easy to spot (when it’s not you, that is!). As many Music teachers know, Music lessons can often become quasi counselling sessions where you end up exploring self-confidence, autonomy and identity. You tell kids all the sage advice that you know is true – “don’t worry about what others think,” “it’s not really about you; it’s about the music” and so on. It’s probably the most rewarding teaching experience when that kid is up in front of an audience and you can see their true self shine and the confidence coming through. It’s often the case that the catalyst is the acceptance of imperfection and willingness to make mistakes but know they’ll be supported and loved regardless.
Perhaps it’s far more challenging to put that sage advice into practice in your life. For me, solving that problem has a lot to do with jazz – and, more than anything else, the standards. I’m no jazz musician – just a few years’ lessons in singing in the late 1990s, a failed attempt at learning the double bass and enough to clunk away at the chords on the piano. But in spite of my rampant perfectionistic ideals, I think I’m ok with it.
When he was alive, I’m told that my dad was notorious for going to jazz clubs, having a couple of glasses of wine and shouting, “play Misty!” It wouldn’t matter which band was playing – my dad was just a sucker for standards, and this one standard in particular. It’s a beautiful song and the woman who really “owns it” – Ella Fitzgerald – is one of my heroes.
As any music historian will tell you, the majority of jazz musicians – quite unlike the pop stars that dominate today’s landscape – were remarkably humble. They knew that no matter how well they played, there was always someone – past, present or future – who would play better.
Humility is a good thing – but only insofar as it provides us with a realistic understanding of who we are and what we have to offer the world. For my part, I’m happy enough to play “Misty,” even badly. At least I’ll be in excellent company.